A spiritual friend once remarked, “I don’t go on vacation. I travel on pilgrimage.” What might this mean? According on one dictionary, pilgrimage is:
- a journey to a place associated with someone or something well known or respected;
- life viewed as a journey.
Pilgrimage as a sacred passage is practiced by most, if not all of the world’s spiritual traditions, with many beautiful variations and themes, and all seem to share a goal of self-transformation, discovery and renewal. From the Hajj to Mecca by Muslims, to the sacred journey to bathe in the Ganges by the Hindus, to the journey to the Holy Land by Christians, to the trip to the Wailing Wall by Jews, or the circumambulation of Mount Kailash by Buddhists, each tradition has its own stories, sacred sites, and rites and rituals of passage, but all seem to be designed to support the pilgrim in the processes of deep spiritual reflection and purification.
I’ve been reflecting on this, as I’ve only recently returned home from pilgrimage to a number of places sacred to the American Indian peoples in the American southwest, and in the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys. Questions that arise for me are why are we drawn to pilgrimage? What happens to us while on pilgrimage? How does our view change while being a pilgrim? I have found for me that there is a strong attraction to the places where our spiritual ancestors practiced. I find that in these sacred places I can feel the presence of those who have come before, feel their energy, their inspiration and intention in the land. And the land itself shares its unique power and energy. There are always reasons why our ancestors chose to practice in these sacred places of power, and through meditation and reflection we can discover these qualities ourselves, and within ourselves.
I was particularly struck by the mystery and power of the Serpent Mound, in the Ohio River valley. We know very little about the peoples who created the largest known animal effigy in the world, of the great serpent holding the jewel of the sun in its mouth. There is not even agreement when the site was created, with opinions ranging from 1000 to 3000 years ago. But we do know the many stories of the serpent passed down to the present day by many Indian tribes, and researchers have discovered there are multiple alignments within the serpent to the solstices and equinoxes. And it is but one of a large group of sacred earthwork sites in the region, that seem to show knowledge of the Golden Ratio and other geometric principles of harmony and symmetry we normally associate with classical Greek temples. And some of these earthworks also seem to reflect constellations. Many Indian societies believe that the macrocosm is reflected in the microcosm, and the stars play an important part in their spiritual lives. Even with my brief visit, the Serpent Mound had a profound effect upon me. I felt a connection with a mystery far beyond, an opening into unknowning. A wonder that opens heart and mind.
A few years ago my family went on pilgrimage to Mount Kailash in western Tibet, a place sacred to the Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Bonpos, a place that is the headwaters of four major rivers of southern Asia, and joined by the spectacular Lake Manasarovar. In many mythologies it is held to be the center of the universe, existing in both the physical and spiritual planes. A spectacular mountain nearly 22,000 feet (6700 m) high, and even the circumambulation path rises well over 17,000 feet (5180 m). When we first arrived the Dolma pass was snowed in, and even teams of yaks could not push through the snow. After a few days we got word that the snows had melted enough to get through, and we set out on the three day circumambulation path, which passed by many incredible sites where saints had lived for centuries, places where masters had pressed their hands and feet into stones, shaping them like dough. After sleeping the first night in a mud and stone pilgrim’s house, we set toward the high pass on the back of the mountain before sunrise, by the light of the full moon. As we walked throughout the second day, the skies darkened and we could see the snows descending on the high peaks surrounding us as we scrambled around boulders by frozen lakes. As we reached the base of the high Dolma pass, we were exhausted by the exertion and the thin air, and could see the snowstorm enveloping the pass above again. As my dream of completing the circumambulation dissolved into the storm, I felt a release, an awakening. I knew that the pilgrimage had nothing to do with walking around the sacred mountain, It was about the process of being fully awake, of letting go all preconceptions. We turned back, fulfilled.
The critically acclaimed film The Way captures many of the aspects of the pilgrim’s path. In its story an alienated father loses his son, and chooses to complete the pilgrimage of St. James across the Pyrenees to the coast of Spain. He goes on to lose something, though he knows not what, and to gain that which he never expected. He experiences life stripped to the bone, finds his own naked self, and is reborn.
In Buddhist tradition, it is said that going on pilgrimage is one of the easiest ways to accumulate merit. Even if we know not fully why we go, the walk itself leads us to answers unexpected, and questions unknowable.
Don’t go away on vacation. Walk in the path of pilgrims.
The Serpent Mound
The Way film
John’s Flickr album of Mt. Kailash